Sunday, February 22, 2015

Smokelit Flashback I

"Fortune Teller Eyes"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Smokelit Flashback is the first of the “modern mixes,” by which I mean the first one that I really developed as a digital playlist, as I described when I first told you about my mixes.  I have older mixes, true, but they’re all recreations of old mix tapes I made (mostly in college).  But this was the first time I heard a song and said, “whoa ... I need to make a mix based on this.”

The mix starter in this case was “Seven Months” by Portishead off of Portishead, and it was the culmination of my discovery of chill and trip-hop.  I had recently started a new job, and part of that for me is always exploring the musical tastes of my co-workers and figuring out what they know that I don’t.  I had already discovered Modest Mouse, Pinback, Mogwai, and Cat Power from one person there, but it was to be my fellow programmer, a fellow with tastes as eclectic as mine (only in different directions), who would lend me his Lemon Jelly EPs and two albums he’d found on iTunes by an obscure German band called Naomi.1  This was the first time I’d been exposed to proper chill, also sometimes called downtempo.  I knew techno, of course, and I liked a bit of it (e.g. “Something Good” by Utah Saints), and I knew electronica and liked a bit more of that (e.g. Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, etc), but I’d never really heard anything like these four albums.2  And, in trying to find more like this, I stumbled onto Portishead.

Now, trip-hop is not the same as chill, but they share certain characteristics.  And the second I heard “Seven Months” (really from the opening bars of “Cowboys,” which would become the opener for Smokelit Flashback II), I knew that this was something which was just totally outside my experience in music.  See, I’d heard some music which pushed the boundaries of what constituted “music” altogether, and I’d heard some music which might be difficult to distinguish between music and comedy, and I’d heard plenty of music that tried to be a story in musical form, but among those things which were undeniably music, there were 3 pretty hard delineations in my head: there was classical, and there was popular, and there was cinematic.  Oh, sure, prog rock (among other forms) uses classical ideas, but it was still popular music in my mind.  And movies often use popular songs, or even classical songs, but that doesn’t make them cinematic.  Cinematic music is music composed for soundtracks, and it isn’t classical, and it isn’t popular, although it generally leans more towards the former than the latter.3  But here I was listening to something I could have sworn sounded like it fell out of a Sean Connery James Bond movie, kissing cousin to Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger”.  And yet ... not.  Undeniably popular music, yet so strongly cinematic you could almost see the movie playing behind your mind’s eye as you listened.  To my mind, Portishead presaged those artists who would produce exclusively cinematic music that just lacked a movie to go with it, such as Chris Joss.  But Portishead was true trip-hop, of cinematic nature but fused with something unquestionably popular as well, with the strong hip-hop-influenced beat and the electronica-derived swirling melodies, and the washes of sound that owed something to dream pop.  It was the production more than anything that gave it its cinematic flair.

I felt like was I in a black-and-white film noir movie, listening to a jazz singer in a smoky club, with the only color provided by the raging acid trip that I was on.  Thus: Smokelit Flashback.

At the time, I hadn’t formulated my concept of mixes yet.4  I basically just wanted to take the best songs from these 5 great new albums I’d found and put them in some interesting order and listen to them whenever I was in that sort of mood.  You know: the sort of mood when you’d like to feel like you’re having an acid flashback in a smoky bar in a black-and-white spy movie.  I rapidly realized that I had enough songs here for two full albums’ worth of listening, although it needed a bit more to flesh it out.  So I started traipsing through my collection.  The first track that jumped out at me was from Norah Jones’ excellent Come Away with Me.  Her music is often more jazzy and upbeat than is required for this mix, but she can do smoky bar with the best of ’em, and “I’ve Got to See You Again” is the best of those.  I was also listening to Chris Isaak’s Heart Shaped World a lot back in those days, which is as close to country music as I ever get.  “Kings of the Highway” feels like something that would be playing in the background of the scene where the film noir detective walks along the deserted desert highway, trying to get back to the city in time to save the dame.  And so forth, with a handful of others that stood out from their surrounding albums as having just the right quality to fit in here.

Being that it started out focusing on just 5 albums by 3 artists, this volume (and the following one) has much less variety than nearly all my other mixes.  After these first two were in the bag, I started trying to adhere to my rule for mix tapes back when I was making those: a given artist should only appear in a mix volume twice at most, and those two appearances should be spaced out as much as possible.  I haven’t always adhered to that guideline of course, but I’ve never broken it quite as badly as I’ve done here. 

Smokelit Flashback I
    [Fortune Teller Eyes]

        “Seven Months” by Portishead, off Portishead
        “Kneel Before Your God” by Lemon Jelly, off [EP Compilation]
        “Paravent” by Naomi, off Pappelallee
        “I've Got to See You Again” by Norah Jones, off Come Away with Me
        “Kings of the Highway” by Chris Isaak, off Heart Shaped World
        “Freshly Squeezed” by Angelo Badalamenti, off Twin Peaks [Soundtrack]
        “(---) [5]” by Swans, off Love of Life
        “Pity” by The Creatures, off Boomerang
        “Curious” by Naomi, off Everyone Loves You
        “Keep the Change” by Banyan, off Anytime at All
        “Over” by Portishead, off Portishead
        “Chaldea” by Transglobal Underground, off International Times
        “(---) [2]” by Swans, off Love of Life
        “Homage to Patagonia” by Lemon Jelly, off [EP Compilation]
Total:  14 tracks,  58:13

Two of the three bridges come from the Swans’ excellent Love of Life, which is more gothic than trip-hop, but suitably weird for inclusion here.  This album contains six distinct tracks named ”(---),” which can be quite confusing when you’re trying to reference them in, say, a mix list.  Here I’ve chosen to just add a bracketed number which represents which instance we’re talking about.  So ”(---) [5]” is the fifth such track (track 12 on the album) and ”(---) [2]” is the second (track 4).

The third bridge is “Chaldea” from the world/electronica/trip-hop-influenced International Times, by Transglobal Underground.5  The other bridge from that album, “Sumeria,” will show up on Smokelit Flashback II.

The volume title is a line from “Keep the Change” from Banyan.  Although Anytime at All is a jazzy, almost prog-rock-like album, which normally wouldn’t catch my attention too much, I had checked it out because it was the side project of Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, and I sort of fell in love with it.

The collection is rounded out by a track off Angelo Badalamenti’s amazing soundtrack for Twin Peaks, and a vaguely eerie track from Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie’s side project, the Creatures.

So that’s my first modern mix, although it really was made simultaneously with Smokelit Flashback II.  But that’s another post.  In the meantime, feel free to make your own copy of this one.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.


1 Any time I mention a band that I can’t find a decent AllMusic page to link to, and the Wikipedia article for them is essentially a one-liner, you can be sure I consider that an obscure band.

2 Specifically, they were: LemonJelly.KY, Lost Horizons, Everyone Loves You, and Pappelallee.

3 Presumably due to the habit of using a full orchestra for cinematic music, although one sometimes supplemented with popular instrumentation such as electric guitars.

4 In fact, my experience making Smokelit Flashaback I & II is how that concept came to be.  Which is why I wanted to start with this one.

5 Another album introduced to me by that same fellow programmer, as it happens.

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